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Guest Lecture series...
Project on African Expressive Traditions Lecture

“Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links”


Presented by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall
Distinguished research professor, Southern University System (Louisiana), and
Professor emerita, Rutgers University
Oct. 18, 2005

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall is a distinguished research professor of the Southern University System (Louisiana) and professor emerita of history at Rutgers University whose research often expands her discipline beyond its traditional boundaries. She is also a meticulous scholar who digs for substantiating materials to turn research into fact.

Through her interdisciplinary approach to the study of slavery in the Americas, she has compiled a database of information on the African ethnicities of slaves that defies what has been believed in the past. For example, most records clerks in offices across the Southeast thought that " Sherman destroyed all the records" of slaves and that no documents remained. In fact, those documents, which were legal records, were usually not destroyed and were there to be dug out and deciphered. Slaves were a legal matter, and records were kept with all kinds of information to identify them, including ethnicity and skills. It is those surviving records, primarily in Louisiana, that Hall drew on to build her database.

In her lecture, Hall described her research methods, the sorts of information she discovered, and how the capture and shipping of slaves occurred to the specification of buyers. Contrary to the traditional idea that slave owners wanted their slaves to be from different ethnic backgrounds so as to limit communication among them, Hall found that owners usually placed orders for new slaves from the same region of Africa and of the same ethnicity as their existing slaves. They actually wanted to make enculturation of enslavement easier by having older slaves quickly teach new ones in their own language. Speaking the same language made communicating on projects easier as well. The earliest slaves were, indeed, involved in highly skilled projects, which meant that owners wanted ship captains to find and capture Africans with the required skills. It was not a matter of random "catch as catch can." In this pre-agricultural Louisiana, such skills as cookery, carpentry, cooperage, and leather working were needed. As agriculture progressed, people with knowledge of rice or indigo cultivation were needed for enslavement. Furthermore, because shipments of slaves occurred in waves patterns, the seeming fragmentation of these peoples is a misapprehension. Over time, the regional clustering of slaves shows up in the records.

Fundamental to Hall's research are three facts: Records in Louisiana are best for this research because the French kept the most meticulous and detailed documents; Africans could not be spoken of as Africans so much as ethnic peoples, such as Wolof or Ibo; and, it was more often the slaves themselves who informed records clerks for legal purposes exactly what their ethnic heritage was - not the slaveholders, as had been supposed.